Harvard Football is Back


Come follow the band to the schools they support.  

Labor Day weekend marked the return of football to America, college football that is. With its return came tailgates, alumni reunions, and marching bands, three items unique to college football. Nothing compares to the fanfare of trumpets as the players enter the field. If there ever existed a true parallel between football and gladiators, it is this. Simply put, college football without a marching band would not be the same. The tradition symbolized by each group is a thing of beauty both for its on-field ability as well as its window into each school.

Because of Harvard’s late start to the football season, I spent my first weekend of the season at Notre Dame, where my brother goes to school.  Harvard football and Notre Dame football do not have a lot in common on the field these days. The teams play in different divisions of college football, the schools place a very different emphasis on the importance of the teams, the students care to two totally different degrees about the teams, and it’s safe to say that one team would beat the other 99 times out of 100. (I won’t say who would win those 99 games, but interpret my silence as an admission of defeat.)  However, the bands at both schools draw praises at the games in their own right. Both bands are steeped in tradition with quirks and intricacies that could never be understood from the outside. Yet, even with these similarities, the bands could not look more different from the outside.

Notre Dame has the oldest continually existing band in the United States. It first performed in 1846 and remained in existence even while losing students to fight in the Civil War and both World Wars. Over the years, the band has expanded its traditional repertoire to include more than ten variations of Notre Dame-themed songs that are played at specific moments during the game. Harvard’s Marching Band has been around for over 100 years as well, and they too have their own repertoire of chants and cheers that date back to the band’s early days. Those cheers have filtered their way into the vocabulary of stadium cheers, and no fan experience would be complete without it. But, outside of this, very little is the same.

Notre Dame takes the field in a tightly packed grid with four columns and the columns stretching as far as the eye can see. Three hundred eighty members pile into the tunnel and then fan out to form another perfect grid. From there, the Band of the Irish intones the oldest fight song in the world all the while marching in time. The left feet of 380 members strike the ground on beats one and three, the right feet strike the ground on two and four, and by the time the fight song has ended, the band has spelled out Irish. And, that’s just pregame. The band’s halftime show is even more carefully choreographed to match music and movement. That choreography included making a cheerleader out of 380 bandsmen, moving those bandsmen to make the cheerleader do a split, all while playing OMI’s hit “Cheerleader.”

Harvard, on the other hand, subscribes to a different marching style, which some would not even consider marching. The band performs a scramble to get from one spot to the other on the field. That means that they simply walk in any direction they want as long as they end up in the form on the set beat. It does lead though to some incredible things like using the largest bass drum in the world and at one point conducting the band with the world’s largest baton. Harvard has even been notorious for the jokes they are able to make mid-show, which inevitably includes calling the opposing team a safety school. They have even been banned from saying the opposing team will work for the band when Harvard is losing.

When you look at it another way, this comparison is pretty simple. The bands in many ways mirror the schools. Notre Dame is disciplined with showy effects and a prideful sound. Harvard is a little more highbrow with the freedom to joke and play as the time arises. Just like in all music, these bands are disparate, and people’s individual interests will determine what they like. But, without a doubt, football is back and with it the band comes marching in. Whether they march in a grid or in a scramble, whether they exude discipline and showmanship or sharp humor and world records, follow the bands to the arrival of football.

Peyton Fine ’17 (peytonfine@college.harvard.edu) visited Notre Dame for its opening weekend of football against Texas. His love of band comes from his own experience as a high school band nerd and will happily follow the band to his second passion, football.